New Electoral Security Framework critical in at-risk elections

By Jillian Slutzker

February 5, 2015

This year, international democracy experts are tracking nearly two dozen high-profile, at-risk elections from Yemen to Myanmar. Policies and practices to keep elections safe are now more critical than ever.

“Democracy demands participation to derive its legitimacy. This participation demands competition, and this competition can turn violent,” says Jeff Fischer, Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International and co-author of two handbooks on Best Practices in Electoral Security and an Electoral Security Framework, both published by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

These handbooks lay out approaches to identifying risk factors for electoral violence, and designing and implementing strategies to prevent, mitigate and mediate it when it does occur. Improving electoral security is an indispensable component of democracy and governance work writ large, says Fischer.

The detrimental effects of election-related violence go beyond the electoral cycle itself and can impede democratic progress long after polls have closed and violence has subsided.

Electoral violence “can reduce political competition, decrease access to information about contestants and suppress voter turnout in a way that diminishes the legitimacy of elected governing institutions,” explains Jeffrey Carlson, Director of Electoral Integrity and Education at Creative.

Last month, for example, on the one-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s most violent election on record, supporters of ruling and opposition parties clashed violently over unresolved questions about the legitimacy of those in power and lingering allegations of vote-rigging from last year.

Carlson says that the Electoral Security Framework and Best Practices in Electoral Security guide, developed and used by Creative, are steps toward addressing electoral violence, “a widely recognized impediment to credible and inclusive electoral processes.”

As USAID and other donor agencies increasingly embrace the tool, he says, implementers “can apply greater comparative experience about what works in this field.”

Partially free, highly at-risk

Countries that are most at risk for electoral violence, and where electoral security efforts should be focused,IMG_3853-270x300  are those ranked as “partly free” on political and civil rights indicators, says Fischer.

In authoritarian states, political opposition is often stymied before it has a chance to rise to the surface. Elections either do not exist, or they are a sham where the winner is predetermined, says Fischer.

In free states, he says, peaceful and fair elections are routinized and conflict is nonviolent and kept in the political space.

All regions of the world, Fischer points out, have experienced electoral violence and its implications can and do extend beyond country borders, affecting diaspora communities and regional stability and development.

Multi-sectoral & multi-stakeholder

Although electoral violence centers on political conflict, a comprehensive framework for electoral security must look at how electoral violence interacts with other important and often contentious issues, says Fischer.

Are political rivals exploiting youth without livelihoods, spurring them to take up arms for a candidate? Do laws and practices bar women from the polls? Are perpetrators of electoral violence walking free? Do media outlets broadcasting incitement?

Electoral security “is not just an elections issue,” says Fischer. “It is a rule of law issue because of the culture of impunity. It is a women’s issue. It is a civil society issues. It is a media issue.”

Because of this multidimensional nature of electoral violence Fischer describes, electoral security strategies must be equally multifaceted and comprehensive.

Leora Addison, Management Associate in Electoral Integrity and Education at Creative and contributor to the Best Practices in Electoral Security guide, says: “Solutions and approaches to electoral security need to include, engage and get buy-in from multiple stakeholders and sectors including political, rule of law, gender equity, youth livelihoods and security sector reform.”

From Elections Management Body officials to poll workers, all levels of actors should be part of the effort to support electoral security so that issues as large as orchestrated vote-rigging and as localized as disputes at a polling station are managed and de-escalated. Involving the right stakeholders will also ensure the solutions are context specific and sustainable.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to electoral security would be ineffective,” says Addison. “That’s what makes the Creative-authored, USAID Framework and Best Practices guide so useful. They are tools for practitioners to be able to analyze the profiles and potential mitigating factors for electoral conflict that are specific to each location.”

Orchestrated violence & tactics

IMG_5239-300x200  Eruptions of street clashes on election day often grab media attention, but rarely is election-related violence a truly spontaneous occurrence, says Fischer.

When applying an electoral security framework to any context, practitioners should keep in mind that most electoral violence is organized. “It has a leadership and enforcers,” Fischer says.

These orchestrators of violence can use tactics at any and even all stages of the electoral cycle from intimidation during voter registration, to violence at the ballot box, and threats to candidates and parties as results are being tallied or announced. Tactics can include sexual violence, physical assault, strategic displacement of populations, property destruction or personal intimidation.

In Afghanistan, for example, Fischer says the Taliban staved off voter participation by posting “night letters” throughout neighborhoods, threatening to maim those found with voting ink on their fingers on election day.

“How many people self-disenfranchise because they are intimidated by night letters, we’ll never know,” says Fischer.

The Electoral Security Framework helps implementers examine the types of violence possible at various stages of the electoral cycle, identify the targets and perpetrators of these acts, and then devise approaches to prevent and mitigate the impact of the violence.

In contexts where perpetrators so often have a large “toolbox” of tactics available to instigate violence, donor agencies and implementers now have a framework and tools of their own to restore and ensure electoral security as countries strive for free, fair, safe and credible elections.

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